Sunday, December 30, 2007

Conversion Class: 11-24-2007

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: the High Holy Days
These holidays are commanded in the Torah.

It was commanded that on the First day of Tishri, there would be a celebration, because that would be the head of the year.  Originally, this holiday was not called Rosh Hashanah, and it bore no connection to Yom Kippur.  It was merely commanded to be a celebration on that day which included the blowing of the shofar.  In modern times, it's the day to begin the process of repentance.  It's also a day that is associated with the creation of the universe, and as such, we are to repent with the intention of tikkun olam (making the world a better place).
Some rituals associated with Rosh Hashanah are the blowing of the shofar, eating honey with apples, making round challah, and tashlich.  Tashlich is the casting of crumbled bread into flowing waters; this is supposed to represent the casting off of sins.

It was also commanded that on the 10th day of Tishri that there would be a day of atonement.  Jews are called to straighten out their affairs with God and to afflict their souls.  In modern times, we afflict our souls with fasting.  To do that, we eat no food and drink no water.  

It is important to realize that Jews believe that God can not forgive sins committed against other people; only the person wronged can do that.  Therefore, today's Jews use the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to make amends with the people they may have wronged.  These days are called the "Days of Awe".

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Shabbat service: My First Torah Service

Today we did a Torah service. Usually, we just do more of a prayer
service and we only look at the Torah in the Ark. Today, though, we
took it out and showed it around. We touched our prayer books to the
Scroll and then kissed them. Then the rabbi undressed the Torah, and
prepared to read today's Torah portion. He told us that he had planned
to read the section with the burning bush, but changed his mind. We
heard the beginning of the book of Exodus, instead. He also told us
that it's part of the tradition to have somebody read along in a
Chumash, just to make sure that the pronounciation is correct. He
encouraged the Hebrew readers to call out corrections, if necessary.

Sent from my iPhone

Thursday, December 27, 2007

I've been neglectful

I haven't been keeping up with my blogging lately. Actually, I haven't
been keeping up with my studies, either. Or going to class
consistently.  This is what happens when you try to jam-pack Hanukkah
and Christmas and flu season into one month...and you work in retail.
I promise to be better when I'm 27.

I had planned posts on a couple classes dating back to November, as
well as on Jews who make me laugh, like Alex Borstein and Zach Braff.
Look for information on great books, too. I'll let you know when I get
around to reading any...

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture, Part VIII

The final part.  Whoo hoo!

I have to say, this was probably the least interesting section of the book.  I think it was meant to be an overview of the Jews' influence on American culture, ended up being a pretty dull list of Jews and a 2-sentence summary of why they're famous.
The notables are broken down into groups: Actors, Writers, Musicians, Athletes, Doctors Scientists, and Political Figures.
It just didn't feel relevant to me, I guess.  There wasn't enough information to do any of the people mentioned, and their accomplishments, justice.

I do feel somewhat inspired to do research on selected figures/pop culture icons/Jews and write up posts about their Judaism.  I might do something similar for TV shows, movies, or songs with Jewish characters or themes.  Just for fun.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Saturday's Service: Hanukkah Shabbat

On Saturday, we didn't have a minyan, and the Rabbi was gone visiting his son, but we held service anyway.  We didn't do as much in Hebrew as they normally do, because I would have had a lot of difficulty participating, and with only about 5 people, that would be pretty significant.

Otherwise, we talked about the special haftarah portion for Hanukkah Shabbat.  It's from Zachariah, chapter 4.  It describes one of the prophet's visions, and was chosen to emphasize the spiritual aspects of the holiday over the military side.   There's an angel talking to Zachariah, and he describes the rededication of the altar and the menorah.

We also talked about how we can make Hanukkah significant to us in modern terms.  It's all well and good to light some candles and spin some dreidels, but there has to be something more to make it worthwhile.  Some people talked about Hanukkah and its contrasts with Christmas as a yearly opportunity to celebrate being Jewish and not succumbing to the silliness that surrounds the contemporary celebrations of Christmas.  Others talked about the fact that Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple, and that we can use it as a time to re-dedicate ourselves to a Jewish way of life.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

2nd Night of Hanukkah

I had to work until 10:30 tonight, so I lit my Hanukkah candles late, but I did manage to do it for the first time.
I'm also celebrating a minor miracle: I found my cat when I got home from work.
The ironic part is that I stayed home from my day job in order to look for the cat.  I couldn't take time off from my night job, so I asked my sister to check for him from time to time and left for work.  
When I got home, I found him hiding under my boardwalk!  I know he wasn't there earlier today.
Hooray for Hanukkah!

News Links: Biblical Archaeology in the News

On National Geographic's website, Eilat Mazar identifies a ruin in Jerusalem as the Wall of Nehemiah.  She points to pottery shards and other artifacts to date the structure, and the biblical record to confirm the identity.  Not everybody agrees, as the article points out, but it's an interesting theory.  For a weak Hanukkah-Nehemiah tie-in, see Faithhacker.

Yahoo News reports that archeologists have found a palace thought to belong to Queen Helena of Mesopotamia.  She lived in modern-day Iraq and converted to Judaism in the 1st century C.E.  After her conversion, she moved to Jerusalem, and, the theory goes, built a palace that the Romans destroyed when they took Jerusalem in 70 C.E.  For a neat Hanukkah tie-in, all this would have been happening right at the time Hanukkah celebrations were first becoming popular.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

First Night of my First Hanukah

I had intended to observe the holiday in my home, but....
My cat ran away.  He charged the door when my sister was letting her dog out.  So I spent the evening looking for him.  Two and a half hours in the cold, and still no cat.  I'm bummed; it's no fun to lose a pet, and it's even less fun on a holiday.

That may be what I get for making plans to go (Christmas) gift shopping with a friend during Hanukkah...

Saturday, December 1, 2007

I skipped class and the service today.

I haven't been feeling well, so I decided to stay home and sleep, since I had the opportunity.  It was a blessing to be able to turn off the alarm clock and not care when I woke up.  I never get to do that.

Service probably involved a discussion of how the Judah and Tamar story depicts an inappropriate and incorrect application of levirate marriage and was probably intended to be part of a smear campaign on David.

Class discussion would have centered around sukkot, which I haven't done a fantastic amount of research on yet.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


My mom noticed that I didn't have any decorations around my apartment this year.
Usually, I do just a little something.
Mom's really into crafting, and so our family typically has a lot of handmade decorations all over everywhere at Christmastime.  She always puts up a tree that is completely covered in angels and other handmade ornaments.  I made some of them as a child; there are a lot of ornaments where we have two on the tree.  One is the one that mom made, and the other is the one that I did.  Until I turned about 12, mine are definitely a little sloppier than mom's, but she loves them anyway.  
Mom loves Christmas decorations so much that she started collecting angels.  At first, it was a Christmastime-only collection, but now she keeps some of them up all year.  She also has a crèche on display year-round. 
 So, obviously, she was going to notice that my place doesn't look very festive.  In typical mom fashion, she brought me some decorations that she had stored for me, and put them up.  I now have a string of quilted mittens at my fireplace, and a stocking hung by the chimney (with care).

Mom means the best with all of this.  She's trying to do things that she thinks will make me happy, and remind me of the beautiful things at a time of year where it can be pretty cold and bleak.  And she doesn't know that I'm pretty sure that I'm going to go through with the conversion; she still believes that I'm simply learning about Judaism.

It just goes to show that it's not going to be the easiest path.  I'll probably never be able to be completely traditional in my observances.  Instead, I'll have to find a balance between Judaic traditions and family traditions.  I'm sure it can be done, but it's going to take a lot of patience and understanding.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Saturday's Service: cancelled

When I went to the temple for shabbat morning service, there was no minyan, so we couldn't hold a proper service.  Instead, we talked about the torah portion (Genesis 32:4 - 36:43), which covered the rape of Dinah.

This is an interesting story.  It's not often talked about in Christian churches, and I'd never been taught the story before.  It's a really difficult and confusing passage.  We mostly talked about it in the context of honor killings, and of the marginalization of women in the biblical text.  The Rabbi mentioned a comparison to The Godfather again, this time in reference to Jacob.

I understand it as an unethical overreaction to an incredibly difficult situation.  Key parts of the story are missing.  We don't know how Dinah felt about Shechem.  Even that brings up the question of whether or not that matters.  If it were a date-rape situation, would that make it less wrong?  And if Shechem's actions weren't morally reprehensible, what effect does that have on the reaction of Dinah's brothers Simeon and Levi?  It would seem that their reaction would be even more extreme and difficult to understand, and very unethical.
At the same time, Simeon and Levi come off very badly in the story, and it seems that the author is trying to paint them as unethical.  It's all very much a gray area, though.  Jacob rebukes them at the end of the story, saying that their actions have made him and his people look bad.  It's a very weak admonition, and it's not even the last word in the argument; Simeon and Levi get that, in defense of their actions.

It's an extremely challenging text, and I really don't know what to think of it, other than to realize that there are as many reactions to a situation as there are people.  Beyond that, there are a million ways to interpret the behavior, especially when it's recorded forever in a pretty cryptic fashion.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Blog Link: Faithhacker

This is a topic that I touched on in my opening post, when I talked about the reasons why I was considering conversion.  I'm concerned about the commercial endeavors of churches, the impact on the separation of church and state, and, ultimately, religious freedom.

Faithhacker posted about this very topic.  It's especially interesting to me, because I have attended the church at the heart of this discussion, and even mentioned it in that post.  The Faithhacker post brings up several of the issues which really do bother me: excessive evangelism, and the separation between church and state.

It's kind of sad, really, because I do feel that the ChangePoint people honestly think that they're trying to better the community, and a place like the Sports Dome really could have a positive effect.  I just wish that they had made it a separate entity, as opposed to an extension of the church.  I would want them to pay taxes at an appropriate rate (I don't know if it's for-profit or not).  I would want them to keep the preaching out of it, even though I agree that the code of conduct for their facility is appropriate.
Basically, if it's an athletic facility, it should be treated like one.  If it's really a church where people play indoor football, run track, and practice other sports, then it should be called one.  I don't like the idea of claiming to support religious freedom, but in the same breath talk about converting people to your religion.

If there's one thing that I've learned, it's that committing to a religion should be an act of free will.  It doesn't matter if it's a religion into which you were born, or one you chose for yourself.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving blogs

Faithhacker has a nice post on how Thanksgiving should be seen as a universal American custom, rather than something Jews should avoid for fear of assimilation:

The Chutzpah Chronicles on Faithbook compare Thanksgiving to Shabbat. She says that the way most Americans celebrate Thanksgiving is similar to how she saw Shabbat celebrated in Jerusalem.

These are good to know, particularly the faithbook link. I may not have the time to celebrate Shabbat completely now, but it's helpful to have a picture of how God might have intended us to observe the day.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Accidentally Following Tradition

Another one from The Book of Jewish Practice:
"A biblical commentator, quoted by Nahmanides, noted that Judah chose the name for his first son while his wife named the second (Genesis 38:3-4).  On the basis of this passage he suggested that in ancient times the father named the first child, the mother named the second.  The custom, however is the opposite.  The mother has the choice of name for the first child, the father for the second, and so on."

Oddly enough, my parents followed the tradition.  I'm the oldest; my mother chose my first name.  It was a coincidence, though.  My mom won the right to name me in a hand of cards. could argue that it was destined.  If God does not play dice with the Universe, then my mother winning a card game doesn't have to be an accident.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Conversion Class

In class, we talked about Hanukkah, and we covered a lot of the same information I had written in my previous post on the topic.
New information:  Hanukkah or Chanukkah are the most correct transliterations of the word.  If you want to be as correct as possible, it should be spelled without the C, but with a dot underneath the H.  Nobody does it that way, though.
A menorah is different from a hanukkiah, which is the menorah used on Hanukkah.  The menorah was a ritual item found in the Temple, and it had 7 branches.  A hanukkiah is meant as a callback to that item, but it has 9 branches and is specifically tasked for the celebration of Hanukkah.

We talked about the two miracles of Hanukkah, and that the military victory story is probably the most true.  The Rabbi pointed out that when Hanukkah was first celebrated, the Jews were under oppressive Roman rule, and a victory against the ruling military would, at that time, have seemed like a miracle.  Eventually, the story of the cruse of oil was invented in order to create a "legitimate" miracle.

The Rabbi also pointed out that Hanukkah doesn't appear in the Torah, but it does appear in the apocrypha.  They talk about the Maccabee rebellion in I and II Maccabees, including the idea that Hanukkah was originally celebrated as a kind of belated Sukkot.
Because the Rabbi is so very interested in history, he pointed out that the story of the Maccabees' rebellion indicates that the Greek army was very disorganized, and that the victory was...more than a little bit based on luck.

The Rabbi also said that he likes to ask his classes about why we celebrate Hanukkah.
He said that the most common answer is "to celebrate the miracle of the cruse of oil burning for 8 days".
After he asks, he likes to continue the class discussion for a few minutes, and then ask, "who believes in miracles?"  He says that nobody ever raises their hands.
I would have.  I totally believe, but I also believe that miracles aren't always supernatural events.  I believe that "miracle" is another word for "luck".  I just don't understand how people can have hope if they don't believe in miracles.  Lucky there's a holiday just to celebrate miracles.

Saturday's Service: Mi Shebeirach

Given the news I received on Friday about my friend's son, the prayer for healing took on an extra significance.

Mi shebeirach avoteinu
M'kor habracha l'imoteinu
May the source of strength who blessed the ones before us
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing
And let us say: Amen

Mi shebeirach imoteinu
M'kor habracha l'avoteinu
Bless those in need of healing with refuah sh'leimah
The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit
And let us say: Amen

Holiday Cards

I ordered my cards today.  My inspiration for the image was a kind of deconstructed hanukkiah, with nine candles arranged in more or less a straight line.  
I like how peaceful and calm it looks.
I also like that it's not overtly for any holiday, really, but it won't look out of place in any Christmas card display.
My mother would approve, I think.  Then again, she'll probably just be happy that I'm sending out cards at all.

Friday, November 16, 2007

If you read this

A friend of mine just found out that her son has leukemia today.
She doesn't have health insurance.
The store where we work is going to put together a fund raiser for her, and hopefully that goes well.
It gets worse, too.  Her landlord has decided to sell her apartment, so she needs to find another place to live.  She doesn't know this yet; her mom is going to take care of it while she's in Seattle for 6 weeks for her son to get treatment.
Her mom has also signed her up for Extreme Makeover.  I hope that she gets it; she's a wonderful person who deserves something good to happen to her soon.

If you happen to read this, please pray for her, and for her son.  It would be a mitzvah, I'm sure.

My Notes: Hanukkah

Even though it's one of the few Jewish holidays that I could have named off the top of my head prior to considering conversion, I was surprised to learn that Hanukkah is actually a very minor holiday.  It's mostly just well-known because it's presented as a Jewish alternative to Christmas, but there's really very little correlation, other than a celebration of light.

Most of my information came from and their Hanukkah section.
In 164 BCE, the Greeks were forcing assimilation on the Jewish people.  The Greeks took over the Temple and started doing awful things, like sullying the altar by sacrificing pigs.  A family by the name of Maccabee started a rebellion against the Greeks, and eventually won.  Unfortunately, they were unable to clean and re-dedicate the Temple in time for the high holiday of Sukkot, so they decided to delay it a couple months.  This is why Hanukkah lasts 8 days....because Sukkot does, as well.  By this theory, Hanukkah is a celebration of the victory of a passionate, but weak, few against a mighty many.

One of the popular Hanukkah stories is that, when they were rededicating the Temple, they found only one jar of kosher oil, which was enough to light the traditional menorah for one day.  It would take 8 days to make more, so they lit the menorah, and God miraculously allowed the oil to last until more was ready.  By this theory, Hanukkah is a celebration of a supernatural miracle.

Hanukkah is about miracles and Jewish identity.  Not everybody believes the legend of the oil, but the successful rebellion of the Maccabees is much easier to swallow.  I think that both stories are important, and each ultimately boils down to restoring the ability to observe Jewish customs.
I think that people need to believe that the impossible can happen with supernatural intervention.  If you can believe in that, then you can always have hope, because even when things are as bleak as they can be, God can change it.  It doesn't mean that he will, and it doesn't mean that if he chooses not to intervene that you're not a righteous person, but it does mean that deus ex machina is possible.  
The other side of the coin is the more people-based miracle; the miracle of a few people defeating a well-trained, well-staffed army.  These are more along the lines of the miracles that happen every day, where people work as hard as they can, and with God's help, they are able to overcome obstacles.  It's important to remember that God doesn't just hand you anything on a silver platter; you have to do your part.

Even though one of the themes of Hanukkah is Jewish identity and the preservation of a unique culture against the pressures of assimilation, I'm going to continue to celebrate it alongside Christmas.
Before you think I'm just too rebellious, let me explain.

While I very much believe in God in a way that I think is fairly Jewish, and I have found nothing in Judasim with which I disagree, the fact remains that my family will always celebrate Christmas.  On December 25, my mom and dad will expect me to be at their house, sitting next to their Christmas tree, and going to a family dinner.  That's our tradition, and it's a tradition filled with love and bonding.  I'm not giving that up, even though the Christ part is much less significant to me.  We were never into the mass part of it, anyway.
I will have Hanukkah in my own home, and I will appreciate it for what it is.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Blog Link: Faithhacker

From Faithhacker:
A post on the Bal Shem Tov.  The blogger tells a story about the Bal Shem Tov and a couple preparing to get married at an inn.  It's a great example of how mundane actions can become beautiful opportunities for Tikkun Olam (making the world a better place).

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture, Part VII

This part covers Jewish history from the Holocaust to present.  There's only one part after that, and it appears to be more about prominent figures than about history.

One of the things that impressed me the most about what I read in Part 7 is the significance of numbers with respect to Holocaust victims and survivors.  I knew that Hitler killed 11 million people, and that 6 million of those people were Jewish.  I knew that Final Solution was the first genocide, but what I never knew was that Jews themselves were never counted.

Jewish law says that a person should never be reduced to a number.  Therefore, Jewish people were never counted.  When you needed to figure out if you had a minyan present, a special 10-word verse was recited, with each person saying one word.  If the verse got finished, then you had enough people to daven.  Even when it came time to take a census, the people themselves were never counted.  Each person paid half a shekel, and the money was counted in order to determine the number of Jews.
This, to me, makes the tragedy twofold; the people were killed when their names were taken from them and replaced with a number tattooed on their arms.   They were killed again when their bodies died.  This is one of the reasons why Anne Frank is such a powerful symbol of the time; she was an individual, not a cold statistic.

I'm not going to write much else about the Holocaust.  The true tragedy is the number of people who turned a blind eye and failed to act.  I'm not talking about immediately declaring war on the Third Reich.  If countries had simply opened their borders to Jewish people and allowed immigration, things would have been much different.

After WWII, Israel was founded as a place where the Jewish people could be free of persecution.  It hasn't been peaceful since, but it has grown amazingly quickly.  For a country that has only existed since 1948, much has been accomplished in the way of development.  I only wish that peace can be negotiated, and soon.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Conversion Class

Today we talked about how Judaism represented a very different way of thinking about theology.

In Babylonia, they built ziggurats, which were kind of like step pyramids.  They had a house on top, which was also a temple.  The god lived in that house, and was often physically present in the form of an idol.  If you managed to destroy the temple, then you destroyed the god's home.  If the god was in the temple and you destroyed that, then your god was clearly stronger and more powerful than that one.
Judaism, however, did something a bit different.  Their temple was a place for God to be when he is on earth, but there was no image of him there.  His name was simply written on the wall.  If you destroyed that temple, then you simply wiped his name away, but you didn't destroy God.  This innovation also allowed God to be present in more than one place at the same time.  The Rabbi describes it as an intentional correction in theology that came in the book of Deuteronomy, with the quote "I will show you a place where my name shall dwell".  Not I.  Just the name.

There were also some technical terms:
Polytheism: a relationship with multiple gods.
Monotheism: only one god exists, and any others are not real.
Monolatrism: a relationship with only one god, but recognition that others exist.

Polytheism was the standard prior to Abraham discovering that you could worship only one God and still be fine.  This is often thought of as monotheism but according to what the Rabbi taught us today, that's somewhat of a misconception.
Judaism started out as monolatrism, recognizing that there are other gods, but that they are not as powerful or special as the God of Abraham.  Monotheism appears in the Biblical text in Isaiah, which was written after the Babylonian exile.

Today's Service: Landmark

For the first time, I was able to participate in some of the prayers.  Some of this was because I'd heard the melodies and the words enough to feel confident in saying them.  Another part was because the woman who was sitting next to me was nice enough to show me where the transliterated versions of the songs were in the siddur.
I really want to learn the Hebrew, though.  It will mean more when I actually know what I'm saying.  At the moment, I feel like my prayers are slightly less effective, because even though I have a basic idea of what we're saying, it's still kind of gibberish to me.

For a Reform congregation, we use a lot of Hebrew, and I like it.  It makes me feel connected to the ancient tradition.  I also really love the idea of being able to read the Bible in its original language, so I don't have to rely on interpreting somebody else's interpretation of the text.
I'll get there.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


I did a mitzvah today, and I'm pretty sure I'm un-doing it now by writing about it.
But I'll continue.

I was standing in line at the grocery store, waiting to buy my dinner. There was a guy in front of me, buying some deli food. His food stamps card didn't have enough money; there was a balance of $1.62. He asked his buddy for money, and the guy started cursing at him. I quietly handed the cashier the $10 I was going to use to pay for my food, and told the cursing guy to be quiet, because it was taken care of.
The guy who was buying the food turned to me, and looked kind of shocked. He asked if I had paid, and I said yes. He didn't say thanks.
I knew I did the right thing, though. When I paid for my food, I had the exact change I needed. I smiled while I walked the rest of the way to work. It felt good.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture, Part VI

Still more history - imagine that!

Part 6 starts out with the French Revolution.  The motto of liberté, egalité, fraternité extended to the Jewish community, marking one of the first times that Jews were accepted into the mainstream of society.  This was due to the intellectualism of the time, exemplified by the works of Voltaire, Condorcet, and Rousseau.  On September 28, 1791, Jews were declared to be equal to all other citizens of France, so long as they considered themselves Frenchmen first and pledged to defend France.  Jews were also permitted to any job which suited their talents, which was another first.

In Germany, the Age of Enlightenment brought good times for Jews...kind of.  They practiced voluntary baptism, which some Jews saw as forced conversion and spiritual death.  Others saw it as a ticket to acceptance by the mainstream.  Reform Judaism appeared for the first time, although in a different form to the Reform Judaism practiced in the United States today.  Moses Mendelssohn (father of Felix Mendelssohn) worked to make the Jews more German and get them out of the ghettos, but without losing their religious identity.  It worked to some extent, but both of his sons converted to Christianity.  And the Jews invented communism.  It was an attempt to make a secular society based on Jewish values, but it failed miserably.  Still, Jewish genius flourished in Germany.

In England, Jews had a difficult time overcoming stereotypes.  Shakespeare's Shylock is a reflection of a common example of that.  The Rothschilds were a family of political leaders at the time who helped to create social reforms to allow acceptance of office.  Benjamin Disraeli did a lot to dispel the stereotypes of Jewish people, but he converted to Christianity in order to do so.

As for the United States, one of the first settlers was a Marrano Jew.  He went along for the ride with Christopher Columbus, who believed that he would encounter the Lost Tribes of Israel when he got where he was going and wanted to have a Hebrew interpreter.  Since the Jews had recently been expelled from Spain, the interpreter stayed behind in America.  Since the USA was being founded based on religious freedom, Jews found tolerance and acceptance in the new country.

These days, one can find Jewish people in almost every corner of the world.

Ideal Student

I found this in The Book of Jewish Practice, whose author says that it's from Ethics of the Fathers.  It's a list of the 48 qualities which make an ideal student:
  • mouthing the words of the text
  • pronouncing these distinctly
  • understanding the text and using discernment
  • studying in a spirit of awe, reverence, humility and good cheer
  • ministering to the wise
  • having good fellow students
  • arguing with students
  • serenity of mind
  • having a knowledge of Scripture and Mishnah
  • engaging in moderation in business, in worldly matters, in pleasures, in sleep, in conversation, in laughter
  • having patience
  • being good-natured
  • having confidence in the wise
  • tolerating one's suffering
  • recognizing one's place
  • rejoicing in one's lot
  • caution in speech
  • claiming no credit for achievement
  • being a lovable person
  • loving God and all His creatures
  • loving righteousness
  • straight dealing and rebuke
  • keeping aloof from fame
  • having no pride in one's learning
  • having no personal pleasure in rendering decisions
  • bearing the yoke with one's companions and judging them favorably and helping them in their pursuit of truth and peace
  • being composed in study
  • asking questions and attempting to provide solutions
  • listening and then adding to the information imparted
  • studying in order to teach and to practice
  • making one's teacher wise
  • attending carefully to what he says
  • repeating a teaching in the name of its author, giving the author the credit that is due
I think that a lot of these are very valuable, and most are qualities that I hope to possess.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Blog Link: Faithbook

Today I was reading Faithbook, which is a blog on religion written by college students.  They represent different denominations and faiths, and it's usually pretty interesting.

One of their contributers is Shari Rabin, who is Jewish.
I agree with her position.  I, personally, have tried to observe Shabbat recently, but it's almost impossible given my lifestyle and schedule.  I usually have to work on Friday nights, which is a no-no.  But since sundown these days is early (the official candle-lighting time for this weekend is 4:20 pm), I give myself a pass.  When I come home from work, I light my candles.  This is usually at almost 11:00 pm, but I think it counts.  On Saturdays, I have to drive.  Even in my car, it takes me 20 minutes to get across town to the nearest temple.  Walking would be unnecessarily onerous.  I try to avoid working on Saturday, but I'm doing well to get my boss to schedule me for the closing shifts which allow me the ability to attend Shabbat morning services and Conversion classes.

I think that the more important thing is to recognize that Shabbat is a gift, and let that be a day that can't stress you out.  I do spend a lot more time in prayer on that day, and I make time for independent Torah study.
This weekend, I'll have Saturday off, and I plan to spend it with a friend, having a pleasant dinner and playing games.  It will be great.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Lifecycle

Edited by Simeon J. Maslin

My introduction to Mitzvot.  They don't talk about mitzvot in Christianity.  You have commandments, but they aren't analogous.  Mitzvot are commandments, in that they are guidelines for life that come from a commander, but there's something more than that.  They're associated with blessings, and are meant to be a joy to perform.  Some are rituals tied to major life events, but others are about ethical living.

Events that have mitzvot are: birth of a child, education, marriage, and death/mourning.
The Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah is considered part of a child's religious education.  Keeping kosher is a mitzvah, but it's kind of a gray area.  It's not a lifecycle mitzvah, but it's not really an ethical one, either.

In Reform Judaism, it is more important to observe the ethical mitzvot than the ritualistic mitzvot.  This is in accordance with the idea that God is more concerned with how we live in practice than in how we live in show.  The intention is where the value lies.
There are a couple of essays on how to make mitzvah relevant in modern life.  The Reform movement believes that there is some freedom to choose which mitzvot to observe, because according to Isaiah and Micah, God is not satisfied by mechanical, empty-minded worship.  He wants his people to exercise their free will and choose to worship.  When viewed through this lens, some traditional mitzvot lose their power.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture, Part V

Still more history...

We left off at about 70 CE, as the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple.
The Jews found themselves living among the Arab people.  This was at a time when Islam was developing.  For those who may not be aware, Islam also claims Abraham as a patriarch.  In the Quaran, Abraham is depicted as an Arab, not as a Hebrew.  Abraham was the father if Isaac and Ishmael.  Isaac is claimed by the Jews as their ancestor, while the Muslims claim Ishmael.  When you come down to it, the two religions are brothers.
As such, the Jews were accepted by the Arabs at that time.  They shared a key value, which was scholarship, particularly in science and philosophy.  The Arabs divided people into two groups: the intellectual and the ignorant.  Jews, as people of the book, were accepted, while other groups, including the Christians, were thought to be incapable of grasping higher truths.  While most cultures languished in the dark ages, Jewish and Arab scholarship flourished.
Under the rule of Mohammed, both Jews and Arabs experienced a Golden Age.  Maimonides (aka Rambam, aka Moses ben Maimon) wrote during this time, including the seminal work 13 Principles of Faith.

Then came the Christians and the Crusades.  Christians couldn't understand why Jews didn't believe what they believed, and began persecuting Jews in the name of saving their souls.    This included burning them at the stake and other tortures.  Judaism was outlawed.  There were, of course, people who refused to convert.  They were usually killed.  There were others who reluctantly converted.  Judaism managed to survive by people practicing the religion in secret.  In Spain, they were called "marranos" unclean animal.  But they still managed to preserve the religion and the culture.  In 1492, Spain exiled the Jews, which was the same year that they sent Christopher Columbus to the New World.  Jews helped to bankroll exploration and settlement there.

The Middle Ages became a period of expulsions.  After leaving Spain, many Jews moved to Russia, where the Khazars hosted the Jews.  Everything was happy until Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church exiled the Jews again.  Poland became the new host, and everything was happy again.  The Jews were permitted to self-govern, and Yiddish became a common language.  Then came the Chimelnicki massacre, and the Jews weren't so happy in Poland anymore.

The Middle Ages also saw the development of Kabbalah, Messianism, and Hasidism.  The Kabbalists sought to find escape from the ickiness of the real world by thinking about the next one and seeking divine truths.  Messianism found solace in believing deliverance was near, and that gave them enough hope to survive, although there were many disappointments as false messiahs arose.  Hasidism believed in the holiness of the common man and found joy in the worship of God, although it was seen as a threat to traditional Judaism because it de-emphasized the roles of Law and Study in the culture.  Generally, rabbis of the Middle Ages were both religious and secular scholars.

Coming next: the Industrial Revolution, Emancipation, and Enlightenment.

Conversion Class

Saturday's class started with an explanation of Minimalists and Maximalists, and how those points of view strongly influence a person's reading of the Biblical text.

First off, definitions.
Maxmialists believe that the Bible is literally true.  This group includes most clergy, Christians, and traditional rabbis.  The extreme maximalists will discount and/or attempt to discredit scientific discoveries in order to preserve their position.
Minimalists believe that the Bible is not 100% accurate as a historical document.  The extremists believe that the Bible was a created history.  These people place a high amount of value on recent archeological discoveries.
Now, the relevant part.
The Rabbi believes that minimalism and maximalism can be seen as a continuum.  He said that Reform (and Conservative) Judaism stand close to the middle of the continuum, attempting to find a balance between the traditional stories and the archeological record.  I can identify with that position, because I never could completely grasp the fundamentalist Christian point of view in that regard.

Speaking of which...
One of the tenets that the maximalist camp uses to justify their position is called "appearance of age", and believes that when the universe was created, it was created as if things had already aged and evolved, and light just appeared and didn't have to move at the speed of light to get from the stars to earth.
Of course, the Rabbi disagrees, and here's why.
Light was, as you may well know, created on the first day.  The sun, moon, and stars weren't created until three days later, on the fourth day.  He explained that this means that the depiction of the creation story was meant to be a poetic depiction.
On the first three days, God created things that are inanimate realms.  Day one was adding light to the darkness which already existed.  Day two was separating the sky from the sea, which apparently already existed.  Day three was rising the dry ground out of the sea, again, ostensibly pre-existing.  It is believed that vegetation came into the picture somewhere between days three and four, because it has some inanimate qualities, but is still somewhat animated.
On the second three days, God created things that move.  Day four was the sun, moon, and stars, which appear to move through the light and the darkness which we were given on day one.  Day five gave us fish and birds, in that order, which is a poetic reversal from the way things are described in day two, where we have the sky mentioned first.  Day six gave us land animals and humans, which rule over the dry land.

There's just no way the creation story is literally true.  It's completely illogical.  We get light before we get the source of that light.  We get vegetation before we get the sun that plants depend upon for life.  It just can't happen that way, not even for a day or two.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Saturday's Service: Haftarah

Today, we didn't go over the Torah portion for the week.  Instead, the Rabbi wanted to talk about the Haftarah portion, which was from the beginning of 1 Kings.
It was about the death of King David and the succession of King Solomon to the throne.  The Rabbi was particularly interested in the references to political machinations among Bathsheba, Adonijah, Solomon, and David himself.

This represented the second time I've heard the Rabbi compare the story of King David to The Godfather.  It's an interesting comparison, the way he tells it.  David had a protection racket going, which is one of the ways that the Mafia made money.  He also had a hitman in Joab, who he specifically instructed Solomon to kill, almost as a last dying wish.

It seemed particularly apt, as I watched American Gangster with my mom after I was done at the synagogue.  I will admit that it was the Magen David around Russell Crowe's neck that initially made me think of comparing the kingpin to King David, worked, at least on the surface.  I want to study more, because I probably don't know enough about either the Mafia or King David to be accurate.  My prior lessons in the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) are best characterized in one word: brief.

If nothing else, it serves as a reminder that the characters in the Bible were human.  They were good people who did bad things, and  sometimes bad people who did good things.  What I take away from it, more than anything else, is that I don't have to follow tradition to the letter; it's more important to learn, understand, and make things relevant.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Conversion Class

On Saturday, we started over with the Jewish History timeline, this time with a different approach.  The previous version was a pretty traditional rendering.  It assumed that all the events actually took place, and was reconstructed from clues given in the Bible.  This approach is consistent with Orthodox Judaism or Fundamentalist Christianity.
Here comes one of the more challenging aspects of Reform Judaism: the Bible isn't literal truth.  Reform Jews consider the Biblical record to be more along the lines of a collection of legends and folk tales meant to teach a moral or cultural lesson.  Think more along the lines of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree than Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address.

On with the show.
Even though Israel and the Holy Land are among Earth's hottest archeological hot spots, we can prove very few events recorded in the Bible.  We're talking about some stunners, too.  There's no evidence of King David.  Shocking, right?  Same with Moses.  In fact, there's no evidence of the Exodus from Egypt.

Since the Rabbi did his doctoral dissertation on the Exodus, we spent a lot of time talking about it.  We really have no idea when it happened, if in fact it did.  There are no references to it in any known Egyptian texts.
We do know that there were Semites in Egypt in about 1700 BCE.  They were called the Hyksos, but their documented story is very different from the Exodus story.  They were kicked out of Egypt in about 1600 BCE.  Not quite "let my people go".  Additionally, some of the places that the Hebrews wrote about during their 4o years of wandering have been found.  There's no evidence of an encampment.  Even some of the towns that were settled shortly after the return to Canaan have been excavated; they didn't find any artifacts that had Egyptian influence.

It gets pretty interesting when you carefully analyze the writings about the Exodus.  It seems that the Tribe of Judah was not involved.  They don't claim that their people were enslaved until after they start identifying themselves as Israel.  In their separate, nationalistic, identity, there's nothing.  Even people from the other Tribes leave them out.  It seems like a Tribe that's represented by a lion and known for their warrior ways would have done something worth mention.

After the Exodus came the battle of Jericho.  Despite what Joshua recored, the walls didn't fall.  There's not even evidence of the city having been occupied at that time.  In fact, there's no evidence of the conquest of Canaan.  See Israel Finkelstein's The Bible Unearthed (I haven't read it.  Rabbi mentioned it.  I do know that he was on Digging for the Truth, in the King David episode).

Speaking of David...
There's only one shred of reference to his existence, other than the Bible, and that's the Tel Dan Stele.  It's esstially a stone tablet, and one line reads "Beit David", which translates to "House of David".  It would be pretty convincing evidence, if only there were enough information to link that line to the Biblical King.  Alas.  All we can prove is that there was a King named David (This was also in Digging for the Truth).

In the end, you have to choose your path.  You can either have faith that the entire Bible is true and the science is fallible, or you can trust the science and understand that people have a tendency to exaggerate, especially when it comes to "my God can kick your God's ass".

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Links and associated Disclaimer

Call it a harkening back to my professional life, in which I work for an attorney.

I've gone back through the my posts and added in links to external sites.

Some of them are to, to better define the books that I'm reading.  It shouldn't be seen as an advertisement for either the book or the website.  My intention is clarity.

Similar grains of salt for some of the definitions.  I've linked to  I chose that because it's not a religious site, and therefore seems unthreatening and non-partisan.  Yes, I know that it's user-written and that anybody can change it.  I also know that there are ideas and themes which may or may not be 100% accurate.  It's a broad stroke, and I do firmly believe that you shouldn't make any major life decisions based solely on wikipedia.

What's in a Name? Would a Rose by any other name really smell as sweet?

In my readings so far on Jewish culture, I'm finding that they place a significance on names. There's a belief that your name can influence your destiny, so parents (and converts) should choose wisely. There's a tradition toward naming children after relatives, either living or dead, depending on whether one is Sephardic or Ashkanazic.

Interestingly, these are also values that my mother shares.

My middle name is a very strong family name, on both my mom's and my dad's side. It was my paternal grandmother's real first name, and it was my maternal grandmother's original middle name. It was also my maternal great-grandmother's name.

As for my first name, it has the same meaning as my father's: Victory.
This gets interesting, because my mom told me that she originally chose it because she thought it was pretty and didn't know the meaning behind it. It gets really interesting when you consider that she's one of the most competitive women in the entire world, and the names of her husband and oldest daughter reflect her love of winning.

The reason I'm writing this is because she just sent me a card. I've been having a difficult time with people at work, and she wanted to encourage me. She chose to do so by writing out the meanings of my names and telling me that she's "just learned that we are to walk in our name sake." Then she writes that my first name is victory and courage, and my middle name is noble and kind, and that I should just be who I am, and everything will be okay.

I don't think she even knows how Jewish that card is. I wouldn't have known until recently. This just might be easier and more organic than I thought.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Today's Service: Meditation

The following was included in the Siddur (prayer book) for today.  I thought it was beautiful.
Our synagogue uses "Gates of Prayer", and it's found on page 376.

Pray as if everything depended on God, and act as if everything depended on you.

Master of the universe, grant me the ability to be alone:
may it be my custom to go outdoors each day,
among the trees and grasses, among the growing things,
there to be alone and enter into prayer.

There may I express my heart
talking with Him to whom I belong.

And may all grasses, trees, and plants
awake at my coming,

Send the power of their life into my prayer,
making whole my heart and speech
through the life and spirit of growing things,
made whole my their transcended Source.

O that they would enter into prayer!
Then would I fully open my heart
in prayer, supplication, and holy speech;
then, O God, would I pour out the words
of my heart before Your presence.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Online Classes

I stumbed across Jewish Pathways  the other day, but only just started actually exploring it.  It's an educational outlet of an Orthodox Jewish website.
Turns out, they've got some online classes that are FREE!  For a limited time, of course.  But you can't get any better than free.  Not to mention that study is a mitzvah...

One of them requires buying a text, which is kind of lame for an online class, but it happens to be a book that my Rabbi recommends, so I was planning to buy it anyway.  I've signed up for the Laws of Shabbat, Chumash Themes, The Way of G-d, and Deed & Creed.
So far, I've started the Chumash course, and it's pretty interesting.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture, Part IV

Still more history...this part will bring us up through the destruction of the Second Temple, so we'll be into the Common Era (also known as AD).  This, of course, means that Jesus comes along during this section.  He's going to get his own post, because it's a special topic.

When we left off, the Jews didn't have a king, and they were just entering the age of the Prophets.  The Prophets' basic message was to stop sinning, because God was going to rain down some punishment.
In 586 BCE, he did, in the form of a Babylonian invasion.  The Temple was destroyed, and the Jews were exiled.  See, the Babylonians were smart people, and they knew that if they divided the people, they would be more easily assimilated.  The best and the brightest Jews were recruited to join the best and the brightest of the Babylonians, giving them freedom if they'd only renounce their religion.  Some of them refused, and a fierce nationalism was born.
Without a Temple, the Jews could no longer make sacrifices, and they didn't have a special place of worship.  Being insightful people, they remembered that if God's light fills the whole world, a special building wasn't completely necessary.  Thus, the first synagogues were created as the Jews congregated.  
As a result of the Temple's destruction, the religion became more democratic.   Since Cohens (priests) weren't needed to perform sacrifices, Rabbis became the more prominent leaders.  You see, priesthood was determined by lineage, while becoming a Rabbi was strictly through study and teaching.  

While all of this is evolving, the Prophet Ezekiel comes along.  He has a vision of the dry bones coming to life, and this vision has sustained the Jewish people through many difficult times.  Having the hope of coming back from the dead to revitalize is a powerful image.  It applied to the Jews during this exile, and after the Roman conquest, and after the Holocaust.  It's an image for all time, an ongoing prophesy, if you will.  

After 70 years of exile, the Jews were permitted to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem, by order of Cyrus the Great, of Persia.

Of course, things couldn't stay happy.  Along came the Greeks.  They didn't attack the Jews, not in a physical sense.  What they did do was bring in their seductive culture which worshiped the holiness of beauty.  Judaism respected the beauty of holiness, and things started to get difficult.  The Bible was translated for the first time, into Greek, and many Rabbis saw this as an affront, because Jews didn't even know their own language.  There were two factions of Jews, the Hellenists (who were Greek-living Jews) and the Hasidim (who weren't todays Hasidic Jews, but were traditional) Eventually, things started to get forceful, and the Maccabee rebellion was born.  The Hasidim took up arms against the Greeks.
The Second Temple was built, and it was during this time that Hanukkah was first celebrated.  During the dedication of the Second Temple in 164 BCE, they ran low on oil for the menorah, with only 1 day's supply left.  It would take 8 days to make a new batch.  Miraculously, the oil lasted all 8 days, and that's why we celebrate.  It's meant to be a recognition of the victory of monotheism over paganism, and its celebration predates that of Christmas by over 100 years.

With the Greeks defeated, there could only be so long before the next battle.  Enter the Romans.  They were nothing like the Greeks.  Instead of being seductive, they were Sadistic.  Many Jews turned to their religion for hope.  Some started a new sect, the Essenes.  They believed that the Messiah was coming very soon, and that their Kingdom was not of this world.  Since there wasn't long to wait, there was no need to have children to continue the people, and they were celibate, so as to not be distracted from their faith by lust.  This was, you'll note, very different for the Jewish people, who believe that marital relations are a mitzvah.  It's also...very similar to how Jesus Christ lived, and how priests live now.  On an archeological note, he Essenes left us the Dead Sea Scrolls.

And then comes Jesus.  At this time, the Essenes believed that the Messiah was soon to come, because God said that he would send his messenger at a time when all hope was lost.  It seemed like just about that time to the Essenes in the face of the Roman persecution.  I'll go more into why they thought he was the Messiah, and why this book says Judaism believes that he wasn't later.  He was crucified by the Romans in 33 CE.

In 70 CE, the Romans took Jerusalem, and destroyed the Second Temple on the 9th day of Av (Tisha b'Av).  This day is significant as a day of Jewish tragedy many times over, so many times that Jews believe that it is not a coincidence.
Due to a deal cut with the General who was attacking Jerusalem, the Jews were permitted to set up and maintain a small school, even while the Romans killed as many Jews as they could find.  This is a big part of the reason Judaism survived the Romans.  
At this time, most of the teachings were part of an oral tradition.  In the face of so much persecution and death, Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi decided to defy tradition and write the laws down in order to preserve them, in the second century CE.  Tradition says that he prayed for forgiveness as he put ink to paper, but thank God he did.  His writings became the Mishnah, and they covered nearly every aspect of Jewish life.

Over the next 300 years, Jewish scholars studied the Mishnah in yeshivas.  Yeshivas were essentially universities, Jewish-style.  Eventually their discussions of the Mishnah were recorded, and the combination of these writing and the Mishnah became the Talmud.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Conversion Class

Notes from Saturday's class...mostly more timeline stuff.

First, we started out with a question from a classmate.  She had been involved in a discussion of a story involving Noah, his son, and incest.  She was questioning why tradition considered it incest, when the text merely said, "uncovered his nakedness".  She wanted to argue for a literal interpretation, that Noah was drunk and passed out and, you know, stuff happened.
The Rabbi explained that "to uncover nakedness" is an idiomatic expression used in the Bible as a euphemism for sexual activity.  To uncover a man's nakedness could mean to have sex with the man, or with his wife.  In this case, sleeping with the wife is logical, because in the morning after, Noah curses his son's sons.  If you go through ancient texts of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean origin, cursing your offspring doesn't happen often, and when it does, it's because he usurped the father's power, or his bed.
As far as the Rabbi's concerned, this very cultural explanation that should be proof enough.  I buy it.  The classmate did not, and respectfully agreed to disagree.  The Rabbi bought that.

On to the history portion.  We left off last week at about 920 BCE, and began this session at 905 BCE, when King David's son, King Solomon, died.
The monarchy is split into two factions, following a rebellion.  The Hebrews are now in two separate countries, Judah in the South, and Israel in the North.

The two exist in parallel until 722 BCE, when Israel is attacked by the Assyrians and falls.  You see, the Israelites and the Judeans had to pay tribute to Assyria, who were the powerful people in the area.  At some point, the Israelites had had quite enough of their shenanigans, and decided to rebel.  According to the Rabbi, the Assyrians were the first fascists, and Israel wasn't the only country to rebel against their rules.  Judah didn't join in the rebellion, and that's probably why they survived.

This becomes the time of the Prophets.
There were two early Prophets: Elijah and Elisha, who emerged around 850 BCE.
Around 750 BCE, you start to see more Prophets emerging.  There was only one Israelite prophet, Hosea.  The rest were Judean: Micah, Amos, Isaiah (up through chapter 30 or so).
Another wave comes in about 650 BCE: Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Joel.

Before the fall of Israel, the two groups are aware of each other, and the prophets wrote about each other's countries.  It is interesting to note that the Israelites referred to their country as "Jacob", "Ephraim", "Joseph", and "Sumeria".  The Judeans initially only referred to their country as "Judah", but in about 650 BCE, they co-opted that name and all the nicknames as well, in an effort to take on their identity.

We spent the rest of class talking about what the Prophets do, and what purpose they served.
Some people thought they could see the future.
Some thought they were scholars and politicians.
I thought they were particularly insightful teachers and leaders.
The Rabbi said that there were three words for "prophet":
Navi: to interpret
Ro-eh: to see
Hozeh: to view
He said that they were the analysts of the time, that they used their theology as a lens through which to view the events of the time and predict what could be expected in the future.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Yesterday's Service: From Sarai to Sarah...Palin

The Torah portion yesterday was about Abram's wife Sarai (the same people who God renamed Abraham and Sarah). She was unable to have children, and in that time, that was a vital function for a wife. The had rules for how a man could go about having children if his wife had difficultites, and one of those was to take a concubine from among the household's maids. This is what Sarai suggested that Abram do. They chose Sarai's handmaid Hagar the Egyptian to do the duty.
They then encountered a problem. After Hagar became pregnant, Sarai felt that Hagar no longer respected her.

This is where the lesson came in. Instead of teaching us the story, the Rabbi wanted us to discuss honor, and what it means to honor someone. And he wanted to talk about the opposite of honor, because that is what Hagar did to Sarai.

Firstly, the word for honor that was used in the Hebrew text, translated literally, means "to give weight to". The word used in this story was "to make lighter". There's a bit of room for interpretation as to what exactly that means. In fact, everybody who shared their ideas had a slightly different opinion.

The Rabbi also told us that he found it interesting that the Bible says to "love your neighbors", but does not say the same about your parents. We are supposed to "honor" them, with honor being from the same Hebrew root.

I think this means that God knows that you will have disagreements with your parents (or your masters, if you're a maid), and they will do things and say things that will make you not love them (hopefully only temporarily). Even so, you must be able to respect them because of their positions.

This got us into talking a bit about politics, because similar logic should apply to political leaders. The Rabbi asked, if George W. Bush were to walk through the door, would you shake his hand? He argued that most people would, although most present disagreed. The Rabbi asked about other figures. That brought us from Sarai to Sarah Palin. Most of us would shake hers.

EDIT:  For those who are sent her by Google and want to know Sarah Palin's religion, she says she's Protestant.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Zipporah, Wife of Moses

By Marek Halter

This is not a book assigned by my Rabbi, but it is a book about a Jewish theme. It's a work of historical fiction; an attempt to flesh out a marginalized character. As such, I do not know how very accurate it is, other than that I could find no obvious inconsistency with the Biblical accounts.

That said, I really liked this Zipporah.. She was wise, passionate and firey, just as I would expect the wife of a great, though insecure, man to be. The author emphasized that Moses was not raised Jewish by having Zipporah act as his teacher. She served to boost his confidence in the face of the difficult task God put in front of him. This, I liked and felt might well have been authentic.

The author contended that Moses had only one wife, and that the reference to the Cushite wife of Moses was literal. Since we know from the Bible that Jethro was Zipporah's father, and that he was a Hebrew, the author wrote that Zipporah was rescued and adopted by Jethro. This makes Zipporah a convert, and I kind of like that (being a convert myself).

There were also some things that I didn't believe.. The author solved the problem of Moses not choosing one of his sons to be the next leader by killing them off in the chaos that followed Moses' discovery of the Golden Calf. I just felt like that would have been included in the Biblical account of that story. I had the same issue with the murder of Zipporah. It seemed too sensational and contrived, and also like something that would have been recorded.

As I continue my studies, I may form a different opinion, but for now, I liked it.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture, Part III

Still more history of the Jews.

We start this section with the Judges, who were temporary limited-capacity leaders.  After the amazing leadership of Moses and Joshua, and the reverence paid to them, the Hebrews decided that God was their King, and the only leader they would need for their day-to-day lives.
But when disaster (or an enemy) struck, they looked to charismatic people who could unite them, despite their differing opinions on how God wants people to live.

Amazingly, the Judges who were chosen demonstrated different weaknesses, and those weaknesses were overcome through the power of God.  
The first Judge was Deborah, obviously a woman, who demonstrated that military leaders needed wisdom and daring, not just muscle and masculinity.
The next we have in the Biblical record is Gideon, who led the Hebrews to a stunning victory after selecting an army of only 300 from 32,000 volunteers.  By choosing his soldiers for their wisdom and religious devotion, Gideon proved, again, that muscle is less important than faith.
The lesson that strength is nothing without wisdom was brought home by Samson, who was certainly strong, but allowed himself to be out-witted and his physical power was taken from him.  After re-affirming his faith, he was allowed to become strong only once more.
The last Judge was Samuel, who cautioned the Hebrews against putting ultimate power in the hands of one person, but ultimately, gave in to the popular demand and selected Saul to be king.
Sure enough, power corrupted Saul, and he was followed by the beloved King David.

David was a warrior, a conquerer, a poet, and very human.  While he did amazing things and his Psalms are some of the best written examples of the human spirit, he still committed sins.  His greatest accomplishment was building Judah, and in creating a plan for the Temple.
David, however, was not allowed to build the Temple.  God did not want a man who had so much blood on his hands building a place which should be peaceful.  The task of building the Temple was left to David's son, the very wise Solomon.  He was also an amazing writer, giving us the books of Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs.

After this, the Jews became involved in a civil war, and 10 of the 12 tribes seceded from Judah and created the Kingdom of Israel.  These 10 tribes eventually disappeared, becoming the 10 lost tribes.
Judah was then ministered to by Prophets, three of the first being Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.

Elijah's message was that straying from God and living unethically would have dire consequences.
Isaiah taught that ethical living, justice, and righteousness were the best ways to serve God, and that we should be a light to the world.
Jeremiah had the unfortunate task of telling everybody that their efforts weren't good enough, and their lifestyles were not righteous, and God's punishment was coming.  It came, and Jeremiah's message became more hopeful, teaching that living according to the Law would bring rewards and a return to the Promised Land.

Part IV coming soon.

Holiday Cards

I decided that this year, I really am going to send out cards.  I've been meaning to do it for the past couple years, but...just didn't get it done.
In my defense, I wanted to write little personal notes in each, but it was too ambitious, too time consuming.  Time is not something I have a lot of these days.
Lately, I've been taking a lot of pictures.  It started when I got a smartphone, and I discovered that I could take pictures and email them to flickr, right from my phone.  I started a flickr page then and there.  Because I am who I am, I ended up getting more ambitious and bought a nice digital camera and started going to town with the photos.  They all end up on that flickr page.

Because almost every picture I take gets posted, I needed to upgrade to a pro account, and when I did that, they gave me some free mini-cards.  From there I got the idea to make a bunch of notecards with one of my photos, and send them to my family and friends.
Then I had an even better idea: there's a company who will print your custom cards, and even mail them out for you.  Sweet.  
Just one problem:  I needed a good photo.  All of mine are of things that I've seen lately and places that I've been.  And my cat.  None of them were really any good for a holiday card, so I had a bit of a photoshoot today.

My inspiration was kind of a deconstructed menorah.  I took 9 candles, and arranged them on my coffee table.  I tried to take pictures of them from different angles, but there wasn't much that I could do with my pretty distinct lack of talent.  I did take some other shots with fewer candles, but I really hope that one of my "menorah" pictures works out.  I feel like that would be a good compromise and transition between my two holidays.  Plus, I really don't want the message of my "Christmas" card to be "Hi.  I'm Jewish now".  It's just not the time or the place for that, especially for my mom.

All I want is a pretty card that lets my family know that I love them and that I think about them.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture, Part II

Book report, continued.  So far, it's more history.  

We learn a little more about the Creation of Earth, and how the choices that God made while he did that tell us about how we should live.
Some favored tidbits from this section:
"Why was one man created first, rather than many?  So that no person in the course of history would be able to say to anyone else, 'my ancestry is greater than yours'."
The book also points out that God tends to improve on his prior we can infer that when God made man, it was good, but when he made woman, that was a little better.

Next comes some more about Abraham, the man who discovered monotheism.  The book recounts some stories from Jewish tradition about how Abraham came to the conclusion that idols were, well, idle, and that a multitude of gods just created supernatural conflict, but that there had to be something greater, because nothing comes from nothingness.  He determined that there had to be one God.

Our next Jewish hero is Moses.  He was born in Egypt, at a time when pharoh wanted all firstborn Hebrew boys to be killed.  His mom put him into an ark, and with a prayer, set him afloat on the Nile.  Pharoh's daughter found him, and adopted him as her own.  He was, therefore, not raised with the Hebrew traditions.  Eventually, he finds out his real background, kills an Egyptian, and flees Egypt.  He then learns the traditions, and is chosen by God to free the Hebrews from Egypt.  He does, and they wander the desert for 40 years.  This was a punishment, because it really only took about 2 weeks to get from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Moses wasn't allowed to enter the Promised Land, due to some sin he committed.  Instead, he was allowed to see it from a nearby mountain peak, and then God himself took Moses' soul and buried his body in an undisclosed location (so as to avoid pilgrimages and shrines).

After Moses came Joshua.  He fought the battle of Jericho.  Moses chose Joshua as his successor, which is interesting, since Joshua was not related to him in any way, and Moses had 2 sons who would have made more traditional choices.

Next comes the period of the Judges, to be continued in Part III.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Conversion Class

Today's class focused on setting a framework for our studies in Jewish history.

We learned a bit about the geography, so we could place where the ancient places were within a modern context.  I can't do justice to that here.
We also started learning a timeline of sorts; we mostly learned a geneology today.

Jewish history starts with Abraham, some 4000 years ago.  He was born in Ur, Babylonia, which was probably in present-day Iraq.  He eventually settled in Canaan, which would be in Israel today.

Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac.

Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob (who was later re-named Israel).

Jacob had 11 sons, who became the patriarchs of the 12 tribes (well...sort of).  The sons were Shimein, Levi, Reuben, Dan, Judah, Benjamin, Gad, Naphtali, Issacher, Zebulin, and Asher.  Joseph had two sons, Ephraim, and Menasseh, who both had land.  This would make 13 tribes, and you can't have 13 of anything.  And so it became that there is no tribe of "Joseph".  The Levites did not own land, because they served religiously.

After that, there is little record of who did what.  Not until Moses comes along, in about 1300-1250 BCE.  Then the Hebrews are led out of Egypt and make their way back to Canaan.

After Moses comes Joshua.  He fought the battle of Jericho.

Then, for a while, the Hebrews have no strong leader.  They're ruled by the Judges, who unite 
the people against an enemy (usually the Philistines), and then everybody goes back on their merry ways.  These guys (and a girl) were charismatic leaders whom the community sought out.

Saul becomes the first united king of the Hebrew people.  He's incredibly popular, and powerful.  He started out as one of the Judges, but after the battle was won, the people anointed him king.  He eventually goes a little crazy.

Enter David.  He fights Goliath, is very popular, and is seen as an ideal king.  He becomes the leader of the tribe of Judah and captures Jerusalem.  He becomes king of the Hebrews.

Succeeding David as king comes his son, Solomon.  He builds the first Temple, and becomes the last ruler of the united monarchy.  The nation divides, because Solomon enslaves the Israelites in order to build the Temple, and they eventually decide that they have had enough and rebel.

That's as far as we got, which brings us to about 920 BCE.

Today's Service: What I Learned

Instead of doing a sermon today, the Rabbi opened up the floor for a question and answer session.  One of the congregants asked about when we should bow during a certain prayer.  She said that she had done some reading, and it seemed like the people at our synagogue never bowed at the "right" time.  Granted, she was reading an Orthodox book, and our congregation is Reform, but that didn't explain the difference.

The Rabbi said that it didn't matter.
The answer to her specific question was that it is more important why you bow, then when.
And then he said something that I really found valuable:
"If you leave the service a better person than you were when you walked in, then the prayers worked."

Powerful stuff.  The whole point is not that you do it correctly, it's that you learn and grow as a human being, becoming wiser, more compassionate.  No ritual can make that happen; it can only prepare you to allow it to happen.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture, Part I

by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Here's the first of my book reports; the Rabbi hasn't given us our booklists yet, but he did say that this would be on it.  Since this is a fairly long book divided into parts, I think I'll just do each part separately.  It should make things easier for me, for my notes.

Part I: Who are the Jews?

This section is, obviously, about Jewish identity.  It talks about the various Jewish stereotypes (like Jews being good businessmen, doctors, comedians and whatnot), but also about who the Jews really are as a people (including why the stereotypes may have originated).

As anybody who's opened a Bible can tell you, the Jewish people are descendants of Abraham, as are the Muslims.  The Muslim people are descendants of his son Ishmael, while the Jews are from Isaac's lineage.  Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau.  Esau rejected the religion, while Jacob embraced it.  Jacob had 12 sons, who became the fathers of the 12 Jewish tribes.  10 of those tribes are lost, and the two that remain are Judah and Levi.  From the name Judah, we get the word Jew.

Of course, it's a little more complicated than that.  The Jews were originally a tribe, but are now a religious group.  They are not, technically a "nation" or an "ethnicity", or a "race".  They're a group of people.  You can be Jewish by virtue of your lineage, or by conversion.  There are a whole bunch of laws governing who is Jewish and who is not.  This only seems to matter when one is considering moving to Israel, as every Jew has the right to become an Israeli citizen (although not all Israelis are Jews).

What I found interesting is that, even though Jews have a patriarchal society, you are considered legally Jewish if your mother was a Jew.  If your father was a Jew, but your mother was not, you must convert to become Jewish.  Being Jewish this way doesn't mean you must follow Judaism.  

Then again, I'm converting and choosing to be among the chosen people.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Plan

For the next year or so, I'll be taking a conversion class.  My Rabbi refers to it as "Intro to Judaism".  Since it's going to be a personal and spiritual journey, keeping a journal just makes sense to me.  Because I'm the kind of girl who finds comfort in research, I've scoured the internet for information about Jewish conversion.  A lot of what I've found so far tends toward the technical, what-to-expect, bland description.  I'm hoping to change that a bit.

This blog will be my personal experiences with conversion.  I'll try to keep it from being all about soul-searching and navel-gazing, because I don't think those things really help (or interest) anybody.  My intention is for this to be a series of posts about what I've learned.  You'll probably see summaries of discussions from conversion class, and probably some book reports for the Rabbi's suggested reading.

Monday, October 8, 2007

My Mom

As I mentioned in my previous post, my mom is a devout Christian.
She kind of expects me to be one, too.
I think this is partially because she basically became a Christian in order to facilitate, and later to encourage, my faith.  I encouraged her in hers, as well.

One of the most difficult things for me in considering conversion is trying to figure out how to tell her.  Christianity has been a big part of our relationship, because many of the things that we've done together, just the two of us, were somehow related to religion.

I've been trying to break it to her slowly, giving her hints along the way.  I'll mention a Jewish tradition that I've recently learned.  I told her that my Bible study has been, for the past six months, strictly Old Testament.

Well, I just got off the phone with her.

We were talking about my work schedule, and I mentioned that I usually work on Sunday mornings, because most of my co-workers want that time off.  She said that I should ask for more Sunday mornings, so I can go to church.  I used that opportunity to tell her that I go on Saturdays now.  Naturally, she wanted to know where, and what kind of church it was.  

I didn't tell her about the conversion class yet.  I think it might be too much.  And, seeing as it only started three days ago and will last for about a year, there's time.  Still, I feel like I made an important step today.  It felt very natural, and, to be honest, it was a relief.

A Seeker

In order to make sense of where I'm going, it's important to know where I've been.  Since this blog is about my conversion to Judaism, let's start with my religious and relevant cultural background.  I'll try to keep this as interesting as possible.

I'm a 26 year old woman, born and raised in a small town in Alaska.  I started believing in God about 20 years ago, back in the day when vacation bible school was a welcome break for my mother.  She didn't start going to church services until I was about 10, a few years after I got involved with a youth group.  I think it's important to note that I chose faith, and that it wasn't something that was forced on me.  It was very much a choice, because believing in God just felt...right.

As I got older, I stayed involved.  I was a member of my church's drama troupe, and I always performed in Christmas programs.  That's not to say that I didn't question my faith; quite the opposite, actually.  
I grew up in a Bible-based, non-denominational Christian church.  They were a bit fundamentalist, but that was at a time when I really didn't know the difference.  We will call this church by its initials, LMBC.  I left that church at about 13 years old, when it divided into two churches.

Most of my youth group leaders went to the new church, and I followed them.  Its initials were CCC.  By this time, my mother had become a Christian, and we very involved in both the church and in supervising my life.  She was instrumental in ensuring that I went to church at least once a week, and she generally attended with me.  The pastor of CCC did not grow up in a Christian home.  This made him really interesting, because he had never planned to become a pastor.  Originally, he was a forester, a scientist.  Because of this background, he encouraged his congregation to ask questions and challenge their faiths.  He believed, and understood, that doing so would ultimately serve to strengthen convictions, rather than allow seeds of doubt to take hold.  I stayed with this church until I moved away from my parents' house and commuting to this church was no longer possible, even though I had disagreements with some of their philosophies.  My mother still attends this church, and is very devout.

I went to college in North Dakota.  Generally, I did not go to church alone, as a result, I usually didn't go to services.  My best friend and room mate at the time is Catholic.  I believe that the first time I attended STANC, it was for Easter vigil.  I discovered that I really liked the priest.  I think he was a Jesuit, but I could be remembering incorrectly.  What I do remember is that he speaks seven different languages, seemed to be well-versed in science, and was a very engaging speaker.  He always seemed more interested in teaching than in preaching, which was something that I appreciated, even if I didn't always agree with what he was saying.  I attended a Catechism class under him, and ended up not converting to Catholicism.    This was partly due to my disagreements with dogmatic law, and partly because I became involved with a different extra-curricular activity which prevented me from attending further classes.

After graduating from college and moving away from home, I haven't regularly attended church.  I have visited several, but I haven't gone to one for more than about two weeks in a row.  I just can't find one that doesn't offend me somehow.  It seems like every Christian church I go to is set completely against providing equal rights to all (generally manifested in their stance against gay marriage).  The biggest church in my area is incredibly commercial, and has recently built a sports arena.  Initially, this project was to be partially funded by the government, which I feel is too much of an encroachment of the separation between church and state.

Between the politicization of faith, the commercialization of charity, and the basic human rights violations being perpetuated in the name of Jesus...I'm seriously considering renouncing Christ and Christianity and believing in God in his more ancient incarnation.

This is partly how I found myself in a synagogue on Saturday morning, attending a Jewish service and beginning my studies in conversion class at CBS.